One of the more unfortunate byproducts of New Journalism has been the impression that a book can be produced by turning on a tape recorder before an assortment of interviewees and transcribing the result. In the hands of a master like Studs Terkel, the result can be stunning, but when the technique is applied by lesser talents, it is fraught with peril. Interviews are not "raw truth" simply because they are verbatim; the interviewer must earn the trust of the reader by being forthright about his or her selection process. This is especially true when the interviews take place in a political mine field like Nicaragua. Many people have strongly held opinions about Nicaragua's revolution and counterrevolution, but there is a serious shortage of information to bolster those opinions. That is why two books, "Nicaragua: The People Speak" and "The Contras: Interviews With Anti-Sandinistas," are welcome additions to the Central America bookshelf, for all of their tangles with the tape-recorder technique.
Of the two, "Nicaragua: The People Speak" is more successful as a book. Author Alan Levie roams Nicaragua and talks to ordinary people--peasants, prostitutes, landowners, tugboat captains, avoiding only the government officials who dominate the headlines. Levie shows a refreshing interest in the nuts-and-bolts of peoples' lives and the way they intersect with their politics. How much does a fishing line cost? An acre of cotton land? Does a husband beat his wife? Can the revolution stop him?
Levie has obviously gone out of his way to include some unfavorable comments about the Sandinistas. But, while his Sandinista supporters pour out detailed insights on the workings of the government's reforms in agriculture, health and education, any criticism comes from a vague, mean-spirited minority.
Levie frames his interviews with an account of a Contra attack at Ocotal. Once he controls his leanings toward purple prose (the "rooster's scream had assaulted the still night air"), he writes a gripping narrative and turns the casualty figures into individual human tragedies.
"The Contras" provides more provocative data for the specialist, but is far less accessible to the general reader. There are shocking passages in the interviews. Jorge Ramirez Zelaya, a Contra fighter, states baldly, "My job--yes, one can say this--was that of a terrorist. . . . Any underground movement is able to survive only with the support of a continental power. . . . Arafat is supported by Libya, and we are supported in the same way by the United States." Other interviews describe the cold-blooded killings of unarmed farmers and health workers. But "The Contras," which depends on the tape-recorder technique for its feeling of authenticity, is less than direct. The subjects of the interviews and their situations are never described in advance. A reader reaches the end of a long interview, for example, before learning that the subject was in prison when the interview took place. The authors' questions serve more to display their own inside knowledge than they do to elicit answers. The scanty connecting material and explanatory notes leave the interview material disjointed and confusing. Once deciphered, however, "The Contras" provides a chilling look at the men and women of Nicaragua's counterrevolution. And, once again, it is their banality that is the most terrifying.